They typically hunt at night, lurking motionless, waiting for their quarry. And when they hone in on a potential target, they strike in a flash.
That's likely what happened Tuesday night when an alligator dragged a 2-year-old boy to his death in the water near Disney's upscale Grand Floridian Resort & Spa as his family lounged on the sandy beach of the Seven Seas Lagoon, authorities said.
The horrific night-time attack is a stark reminder of how quickly humans can be blindsided by Florida's primitive, iconic predator -- even in the family friendly bubble of one of the world's most famous theme parks.
"You have a small person, probably splashing around, and that's a lot like what raccoons and otters and other alligator prey do," said Marty Main, an expert in alligator behaviour and program leader for natural resources at the University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.
Authorities said the boy was at the edge of the lagoon, probably about a foot or two into the water, when the alligator attacked. The father tried to rescue his son but was unsuccessful.
Alligators don't target humans, but they do mistake them for a more typical food source.
The reptiles mainly choose their meals based on what's available, which means they'll eat fish, frogs, birds, turtles, insects, snakes, small mammals, deer and wild hogs. Dogs and cats look like natural prey, so gators sometimes attack people's pets.
"Anything that's about the right size and the right opportunity is potential prey," Main said. "They can even go for adults if you find yourself in a compromising position."
Officials estimated the alligator in the Orlando attack was 121-213 centimetres long, though its exact size was unknown.
That's not large enough to swallow a toddler, Main said.
People should assume alligators could inhabit any sizable Florida pond or lake, Main said, whether it's rimmed by an attractive sandy beach or not.
That the father was able to try pulling the boy from the gator's mouth seems to indicate he was close by, Main said. But alligators can move quickly, so a safe distance from the water's edge is probably 25 yards, he said.
Tourists in general are probably more vulnerable to attacks, he said.
"They're not really thinking about this large, dangerous animal having access to my child," he said.
Alligators aren't going away, Main said.
"They'll always be here, and there are a lot of them, so we have to use common sense, good judgment and very conservative, protective behaviour with our children around water bodies."
Tampa Bay Times